DRC: Eastern Ebola outbreak defeated, ‘mission impossible’ now a ‘sign of hope’

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Nurses celebrate the end of the Ebola epidemic in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where over 200 staff worked tirelessly to protect children from the disease. — courtesy UNICEF/Jean-Claude Wenga

GENEVA — After nearly two years and 2,280 deaths, the world’s second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is finally over, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.

"The outbreak took so much from all of us, especially from the people of DRC, but we came out of it with valuable lessons, and valuable tools,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The Ebola outbreak in eastern DRC began in August 2018 and ranked second only to the 2014-2016 outbreak, which, in an active conflict zone in West Africa, killed 2,287 people and infected 3,470 — 28 percent of whom were children, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever that is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads through humans.

Noting that a vaccine has been “licensed, and effective treatments identified”, the WHO chief stated, “the world is now better-equipped to respond to Ebola”.

“It wasn’t easy, and at times it seemed like a mission impossible,” WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti told journalists

Despite medical advances, with more than 300 attacks on health facilities and 11 deaths among medical staff and patients, insecurity has been a main obstacle in responding.

And beyond armed violence, widespread mistrust among affected communities has added additional hurdles.

“Ending this Ebola outbreak is a sign of hope for the region and for the world, that with solidarity and science and courage and commitment, even the most challenging epidemics can be controlled,” said Dr. Moeti.

Struggle continues

UNICEF welcomed the announcement but warned that in response to a new Ebola outbreak in the northwestern province of Equateur, increased efforts must continue.

The head of the UN Emergency Ebola Response Office, Abdou Dieng, pointed out though that “before we even ended the 10th epidemic, an 11th epidemic was started in Mbandaka”.

“We have beaten Ebola in Eastern DRC but the struggle isn't over yet,” he said.

On June 1, the virus resurfaced in Equateur province, infecting 24 and killing 13 people. Genetic sequencing has shown that the outbreak is not linked to the one in the east or to an Equateur outbreak in 2018.

“Despite this, communities across DRC need to know now and in the future that they can recover from the disease," reminded Dieng.

COVID in the fore

After almost two years of building preparedness and response capacities for Ebola, the DRC and its nine neighbors have stronger skills, systems and capacities to manage a range of emergencies.

“These have been quickly activated in response to COVID-19 in the DRC and its neighboring countries,” asserted Dr. Moeti. “Working together we leave an enduring legacy which is now supporting the fight against COVID-19 and other outbreaks.”

There are now more than 332,000 COVID-19 cases on the African continent and 8,700 people have lost their lives. Africa is no longer the WHO region least affected by coronavirus.

In the past week, 10 of 47 countries in the region accounted for 89 percent of new cases with five nations accounting for 80 per cent of new deaths.

And in some countries, more than five percent of infections are among health-care workers – a huge concern as their safety is a priority to help others.

While cautioning that cases among refugees and internally displaced people living in crowded conditions “could easily spread”, Dr. Moeti warned “when they are absent, communities are at greater risk”.

Meanwhile, UNICEF DRC Representative Edouard Beigbeder noted that “as DRC records over 6,000 cases of COVID-19 infection, it is more important than ever that international donors support the country’s already overburdened health systems to fight against the disease and tackle the impacts on children and their families,” — UN News


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